Dancing for Joy

by Rev. Jon Turner.

In mid-July, the Orange County Buddhist Church holds an Obon festival. During the festival, many people come to the BEC Book Sale booth in front of the Hondo and ask us where are the Koi fish, the Bonsai trees, the displays and the demonstrations. I always smile when this happens and I explain to them that they are thinking of the Hanamatsuri festival which is held each year in mid-April to celebrate the Buddha’s birth.

I found this very interesting because each year I used to come to the Hanamatsuri festival and ask when are we going to dance? And those around me would smile and explain that I was thinking of the Obon festival. To memorize which festival was which I would repeat to myself that Obon is the festival with dancing. But I no longer think that this is quite right. Today, I think it is better to say that Obon is dancing. But I have had a very difficult time with this. I could not explain why Obon is dancing. Dancing seemed too simple to be the meaning of a major Buddhist festival.

I was always looking for some other meaning to Obon other than dancing but this was a big mistake. Throughout Buddhist history dancing has been used to symbolize the spontaneous joy that accompanies insight. Even in America, we use this phrase “dancing for joy” to describe someone who is completely overwhelmed. Many times we use this phase figuratively but its origins are more literal. People who have experienced a sudden realization literally and involuntarily “dance for joy”. A simple, everyday example of this is all the dancing that occurs after a goal is scored in the World Cup.

However, rather than achieving a specific goal, Buddhist examples of dancing occur after sudden insight into the entirety of one’s life. At Obon, we focus on the spontaneous dancing of Mogallana. Mogallana was one of the Buddha’s two main disciples. After his mother’s death, Mogallana was tormented because she was not as devout a Buddhist as he had hoped she would be. He was embarrassed by her and felt that he should have been able to have had a greater influence upon her. After self-reflection, Mogallana realized that he had had it backwards. It was his mother’s profound influence upon him that had enabled him to become one of the Buddha’s greatest disciples. For the first time, he realized that she was the Bodhisattva that had led him to the Buddhist path. At that moment he spontaneously began “dancing with joy.” Traditionally, it is this story that is used to explain why we dance at Obon.

However, many stories like this can be found throughout Buddhist history.  For example, there was a great Chinese master name Tsung-mi who lived in eighth century. Tsung-mi’s interest in Buddhism began at age eighteen after the death of his father. His initial awakening experience occurred six years later after reading several lines of the Scripture of Perfect Enlightenment.  It is said that his awakening experience “so overwhelmed him that he found himself spontaneously dancing for joy.”  Though Tsung-mi’s awakening experience was certainly sudden, it is very significant that it did not occur during meditation but instead occurred after reading several lines of scripture. It is this experience that led Tsung-mi to caution others not to merely replace the study of the Dharma with the practice of meditation. In this way, Tsung-mi was known as a Buddhist synthesizer.

So far we have had an example of Indian dancing with Mogallana and an example of Chinese dancing with Tsung-mi. I would like to conclude with an example of Japanese dancing. It may be a bit surprising but Shinran also frequently uses the analogy of “dancing for joy”. The phrase “dancing with joy” appears in the Collected Works nine times. Each time describing the same overwhelming joy that occurs when one realizes insight. The following appears to be one Shinran’s favorite quotes from The Larger Sutra. It appears in the Collected Works four times.

“The Buddha said to Maitreya, ‘If there are persons who, having heard the Name of that Buddha, leap and dance with joy and say it even once, know that they receive the great benefit; that is, they acquire the unexcelled virtues.’”

I believe that Shinran emphasizes “dancing with joy” because it captures the feeling he had when he first heard the Pure Land teachings from his teacher Honen. This is the same feeling of overwhelming joy that Mogallana and Tsung-mi both experienced. We dance not so much in honor of Mogallana but rather we are spontaneously “dancing with joy” in honor of sudden insight; insight that occurs through the self-reflection of Mogallana, the study of Tsung-mi and the deep hearing of Shinran.

This is why we dance. So whether you have the dances memorized or not please remember there are no wrong steps when one is spontaneously “dancing for joy.”

In gassho,

Rev. Jon Turner